I told Joe that the most important thing I learned at the Fire Academy was to never be too proud to call a MayDay. He looked at me and smiled. “Yeah, always accept help…”he said. Joe said he held the record as the oldest guy to join the Atlantic City Beach Patrol (at age 46) and he was eager to see if I would beat his record. He asked me if I was a confident swimmer. I replied, “Sure!”
Today I did a strange thing. I can’t call it courageous. I can’t call it reckless either. At 47.8 years old, I tried out to be a lifeguard. It was spur of the moment. But my excursion to the New Jersey shore was more of a research project. A colleague of mine posted the ad for lifeguards on her social media two days ago. I saw it and thought “hmmm?” It was time for a new adventure. When I saw the the minimum age requirement was 16, I should have used my God-given wisdom to consider nothing more.
But I’m not built like that normally. So unless there was a VERY good reason not to, I figured it was prudent to take a closer look.
The drive to Atlantic City (at 6am) was spiritual in itself. No one on the road, the sun peering through the overcast sky, and a YouTube sermon that a friend sent me a month ago were all guiding me. Not for one moment did I think that today might be my last.
But as I reflect on those moments that I have been truly at rest with my entire being, I’ve always reached out to my brother to show him that I love him and admire him. The last time something like this occurred was nearly 20 years ago when I passed out while riding my brand new motorcycle. For the record, I went into anaphylactic shock from a bee sting. Alas, that is a story for another day.
I arrived in the city early. The outlets had not yet opened. The boardwalk still had morning wellness jockeys jogging and cycling. Roll call was 9am sharp! I had time. So I scooted over to my brothers condo which is a few blocks off of the beach. We rapped about current events and the daily grind. But no talk of mom. We wanted to keep the conversation light.
I told him that I was coming down to watch the candidates try out. I assured him that it was a young man’s game. I needed to hear myself say it. I learned today that even I don’t believe the words coming out of my mouth sometimes. But after a hug, I was out the door. Couldn’t be late.
I put money in the meter to allow me a good hour. That would be time enough to witness, ask a few questions, and be on my way. My tenacity changed when I reached the beach patrol headquarters.
“Is this where candidates sign up?” I asked. I was greeted cordially and offered an application which merely asked for my vital information. I noticed that there was no question about an emergency contact. That should have been my second clue not to do this.
They tattooed a 16 on my right shoulder with a red sharpie. This for sure would be how they would identify my body. I was committed now (or I should say I should have been committed)!
A bunch of teenagers, mostly boys, were chatting it up. Some were sporting ripped T-shirt’s from their high school crew team. They weren’t muscular. Mostly streamlined. I figured that my extra mass would either help me stay afloat or contribute to my self-inflicted demise.
There was only one other adult trying out. His name was Mike too and he couldn’t stop pacing. He was bald and had grey stubbles protruding from his chin.
As we walked toward the beach I trailed all of the others. I toted my duffel bag so that I could stow my phone, my keys, and my glasses. The other fellows were stretching and bouncing. A few ran out to the surf to condition their bodies for the cold water. I didn’t need to do ANY of those things. I figured that in a real emergency, there will be no time for warmups.
The lead evaluator briefly explained what will be expected for round one. Everyone will run from the starting line to the water, swim through the waves out to a red flag nearly 175 meters away. Then we would swim another 175 meters north against the current to arrive at a green flag. Crews will be in the surf to direct us and guide us back to the beach. We then needed to sprint to a finish line that was a makeshift goalpost. Candidates will be placed according to their achievement, with consideration given to efficiency and speed.
THIS is when I should have stopped. Instead I paused. I set my bag down at the starting line. I bent down to place my shirt, bandanna, and glasses in the bag. Without my glasses, I couldn’t even see the first red flag. Read that again. I ignored all of the red flags.
He blew the whistle. All of the cadets (because we were more than candidates at this point) jolted towards the surf. I would simply follow them. If I could keep up with a few of them, I wouldn’t come in last. At this point it was just about doing someTHING.
My confidence wavered as I tripped in the shallow water 30 paces in. The others were diving into the cresting waves. Some waded over the surf. The achievers were already into a full on breaststroke. And I was choking on the salt water.
As I write this, my feet are buried in the sand. I’m watching from beneath the beach patrol porch as the cadets continue their quest. Round two is rowing. I was looking forward to that part too. I’ll watch for now.
I had a chance to grab my bag and walk back to my car without being noticed. Instead I’m grinning from ear to ear. I think the veteran staff was either embarrassed for me or disgusted with me. They were certain that this old man would wash out. I didn’t disappoint.
I’m enjoying the breeze though. I’ll stop up at the surf shop in a few minutes to get myself an “official ACBP” tank top. I’ve got time. There’s still 45 minutes left on the meter.